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December 23, 2014

Think back to when you were in school and wanted to share something nasty, hilarious or juicy without the fear of being identified. You could pass a note in class, but then you’d risk the dreaded “Why don’t you share it with the class?”

You could start a rumor, but then you’d be taking the chance of it somehow coming back to you. (“Can you believe Becky said that?!”)

Then there was always the good old-fashioned option of scribbling it on a bathroom wall; completely private and totally untraceable. . . unless it was your phone number being written for a good time.

Well now it’s 2014, and there’s an app for that. If you want to say something anonymously to the masses, just pick up your phone and download Yik Yak.

“What’s Yik Yak?” you ask.

It’s the social media gossip channel where privacy meets proximity. A person only has to provide their phone number (for location tracking) to access the app, and start scrolling through the confessions and questions of fellow Yaks within a 1.5-mile radius. No required email address like Facebook or username like Twitter, meaning that users have relative privacy and can start yakking away immediately.

Love it or hate it, Yik Yak is quickly becoming a social media staple at college campuses. As of this past October, Yik Yak was present at more than 1,000 colleges and universities worldwide.

Since Yik Yak is so popular among college crowds, posts tend to be light-hearted and funny, with a tendency toward sex, drinking and pizza. (Oh, college.) That’s what sets it apart from more confession-based anonymous apps like Whisper and Secret (plus the fact that Yik Yak has more iOS downloads than the other two apps combined).

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So what’s the harm in being able to vent about your annoying roommate, or your crush on the sexy Bio TA, knowing that you won’t get caught?

The answer is: nothing really, until anonymity turns into hostility.

Some users have taken advantage of Yik Yak’s relative anonymity to post hurtful comments targeting individuals and groups. The app combats these negative posts by giving users control over what content stays visible and what’s removed through an upvote/downvote system. If a post receives five downvotes, it’s immediately removed from the feed.

In some cases though, posts on the app have been even more serious, and hitting close to home.

This past October, a freshman at Widener University was arrested after posting a message that said he was going to “Attempt to shoot everyone who I hate and who bully me every single day.” His post also listed the locations of other mass shootings, including Virginia Tech and Columbine.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance of the app being used for harm. Within the past year, 37 people have been arrested for using Yik Yak to post threatening messages. Just before Thanksgiving, vague threats posted about a high school in Manhattan Beach, CA led to the school shutting down for two days, and then reopening with a new bag-search system in place. (Yik Yak has geo-fences, or blocks, around U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools, but that can’t stop users from posting about the same schools outside of that radius).

Another student in New York used the app to make personal threats, and has since been arrested on a federal charge that could result in up to five years in prison if convicted.

But wait – how did they find those people? Didn’t you just say that Yik Yak is totally private?

Nope, not totally private. Just relatively.

The app has a Rules & Info section that specifically discourages negative yaks, and asks the Yik Yak community to help monitor them. But just in case someone does break the rules, Yik Yak uses their Privacy section (because everyone, especially college students, reads that…) to let users know that they can still reveal your information to the appropriate groups if it’s deemed necessary for safety or legal reasons.

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Users who are still asking the question, “Is it cool if I threaten someone on here?” can also find the answer spelled out on Yik Yak’s website under their Support FAQs.

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So if you’re ready to start Yakking away, go on ahead. Just don’t press that “send” button without remembering that absolute privacy on social media is like unicorns, fairies or a hassle-free parking spot in Center City; it’s a nice thought, but it’s not reality.

Here at ChatterBlast, the general consensus is that Yik Yak’s 15 minutes may be up soon. Its earning potential is limited, and industry trends show that social users, young and old, like channels with profiles. Yik Yak’s anonymous factor may be a disadvantage here since its design doesn’t allow for the recognition of individuals user’s popularity.

One user summed up today’s desire to be acknowledged for social media success perfectly: “I wish my friends could see how many upvotes I get so they’d know I’m funny.”

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